The 20 most essential art books for a school library

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The 20 most essential art books for a school library

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Nov 12, 2006, 7:59 pm

I am able to send ranked lists of recommended books to the librarian at the U.S. high school (ages 14-18) where I teach. I would love your suggestions! (Donations accepted as well... ;).

Editado: Nov 19, 2006, 1:06 pm

Hi Kristena,

I'm not sure what you're looking for here, but will offer one of my favorite books as a beginning to your list. I think school kids would enjoy it. I know I would have at that age. The title is Impressionists in Winter by Charles Moffett,et al. The prints are beautifully done, there is a wealth of information about the paintings and the painters, dates are included (which is VERY important to me personally and aren't always), and it reads more like a catalog than one of those long, boring tomes designed to impress with LOTS of "personal insight." I like it very much.

Nov 19, 2006, 2:18 pm

Do you want suggestions on the best of the "Lascaux to Last Week" surveys so that they have a broad foundation, or the most likely to inspire some kind of sustained interest in the visual arts?

Nov 19, 2006, 9:00 pm

My interest is in general surveys covering world art, not just Western. Excellent indexes are helpful when doing research projects. Quality bindings that will last over time. Text which will not be stuck in a time warp 15 or 20 years from now. Probably acid-free paper if that's common enough. Probably for western art of the 20th century it would be nice to have tomes on major movements: surrealism, pop art, etc. I guess considering the wealth of western art books pre-20th century, I'd be interested in bringing more recent art into the library.

Nov 20, 2006, 5:28 pm

Okay. I think I get it and will take a stab. I should say that I have zero pedagogical experience. So I doubt you want my suggestions unalloyed. But perhaps others here will comment on them and / or you can get to a larger public or university library and have a look at them yourself and decide.

I remember when I took AP European History (back around the tail-end of the Vietnam War), one of the test questions that stumped a lot of my classmates was to match a painting (a Seurat, IIRC) to its period. Not Impressionism vs. Neo- or Post-Impressionism, but Impressionism vs. Expressionism or Cubism. I doubt things have changed much in the intervening decades. But you can still probably manage to have a few kids know more than that Monet and Manet are two different people.

Something that I do not get is how teenagers manage to have the same negative opinions about Modernism as their grandparents. This belief isn't based on any scientific survey that I've seen, but just overheard conversations at the museum or posting in blogs and on those group sites that encourage flaming like Slashdot or fark whenever Pollock or Rothko somehow comes up. Even more so geometrical abstraction (which we collect), which used to be regularly lampooned in New Yorker cartoons, where the gag was always that it was incomprehensible. People thought Impressionism was outrageous too at one time, but now everyone crowds in to look at mediocre examples. Does it really take more than a hundred years for mainstream tastes to mature?

I am guessing that these are middle or upper-middle class white kids. And that some of their parents will have a art at home other than Warner Sallman. I appreciate that there isn't any way to confirm or correct this without risking getting into lots of trouble. But that's my assumption.


I think you're saying that you've got Classical and High Renaissance already covered. I hope some of this is up-to-date, though. For instance, one should probably know that originally Greek marbles were often garish polychromes. (This was a subject or much debate beginning in Victorian times. It was settled by the Second World War, but as we know it takes a while. They can see pretty much the very same difference between the sublime Indian statuary in museums and its contemporary continuations on Discovery HD).

It sounds like you want one or more of Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Janson's History of Art, Stokstal's Art History or Honour & Fleming's A World History of Art, all of which compete for the same Art History 101 market. I bet others here have opinions on which is best; I don't myself, really. You'll want a somewhat recent edition, as the canon keeps changing and in particular has added a lot more emphasis on non-Western Art lately. You probably don't need the very latest edition, though. Which means you can get it a lot cheaper in remainders. Core course textbook publishing is a scam. As a prank, you could get the October gang's Art Since 1900 and wait to see how their freshman professors react: lots of people seem to absolutely hate this book.

To expand and fill in some of the gaps, a bunch of volumes from Thames and Hudson's World of Art series might be a good buy. They are a bit small and the bindings may not hold up forever, but the reproductions are solid quality. And the text is almost always reputable. For instance, Contemporary African Art has material that you'd be hard pressed to find except maybe in a bunch of carefully assembled reprints from African Arts. Aboriginal Art is also very good, if not as unique. (These happen to be a couple of areas we collect.) Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century, which may be more germane for your geography, is not as specialized, but still well informed. There are also volumes on various movements like you wanted: Surrealism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism, etc.

Non-Western Art: A Brief Guide is interesting in that it aims specifically to have a broad focus outside the West. It's a lot of ground to cover, though, and it's a thin book.

I think there's something to be said for opinions of the time, since art does not exist outside of the larger environment. Wolfflin, Fry, and even Read may be unnecesarily hard going, though. But Irving Sandler's Triumph of American Painting, The New York School, American Art of the 1960s, and Art of the Postmodern Era give an account of a Post-War New York that's worth considering. In particular, I think one should appreciate how, pace Greenberg, things like the Spanish Civil War informed mid-Century Modernism.

Taschen's Women Artists might be appropriate, since even though we may know that a woman can be an artist today, we still don't always acknowledge that she can be a great artist. It and their Art of the 20th Century are beautifully produced, thoroughly PoMo treatments. Although I suppose a consideration is that they may have too many pictures of naked women of the edgy sort that doesn't necessarily escape under the "it's art" clause.

6kenji Primeira Mensagem
Nov 20, 2006, 5:36 pm

How about something Japanese to broaden horizons a little, eg Hiroshige ("Hiroshige's journeys in the 60-odd provinces"- cheaper than the wonderful 100 Famous views of Edo) or Hokusai.

Editado: Nov 21, 2006, 10:18 am

Are you familiar with Art: a new history by Paul Johnson? It's a general survey that goes beyond just Western art and was pretty thought provoking ... Johnson is kind of "pop" history writer in the Simon Schama vein, but also, per this book, somewhat of an artist/art aficianado ... the only thing that got on my nerves a bit was his amazingly specific praise for so many artists ... stuff like "X is perhaps the finest still life featuring two apples ever created by a right-handed Dutch painter under six-feet tall working in oils and living in Paris during the second half of the first decade of the 19th century."

... also, based on the age group you're trying to reach, I'd suggest The Art Book and The Photography Book by Phaidon Press ... the books have zero context, but provide examples of the work of hundreds (?) of artists, so they're great for a beginner who is just getting interested in art.

Editado: Nov 21, 2006, 10:03 pm

Though they don't have an index, I would also recommend the Phaidon Colour Library. They are paperbacks, inexpensive, good quality, feature both individual artists and movements, and don't weigh 50 lbs. each, making it easier to turn them to get a good look at the prints. They aren't coffee-table, but they're very nice.

Nov 22, 2006, 3:33 am

These suggestions are great. I will use this holiday weekend to get back to you all...

Editado: Mar 11, 2007, 8:39 pm

to kristena-I taught art k-12 in Indiana in 1960 and in Canton Ct in 1966-68. The older students had favorites and did book reports, so the Phaidon size individual books were very helpful to them. A book like German Expressionism by Peter Selz is the sort of specialized book that they really appreciated. For the modern period, a book each on surrealism, impressionism, cubism, op art, pop art, performance art, post impressionism and minimalism could be shared much more easily than one big fat survey book with only a half a page on an important artist. Sculpture, drawings, prints, pottery and textile art need books of their own. I hope your library has some money and it's not too late to buy some stuff. My books are in ny and i am in florida so I can't quote exact titles, and my books are mostly on individual artists rather than periods. l

Jan 2, 2008, 1:50 pm

I would highly recommend getting a copy of Purposes of art: An introduction to the history and appreciation of art by Albert E. Elsen - a brilliant introduction focussing on how art functions instead of just looking at historical time-line.

12anyanka323 Primeira Mensagem
Fev 10, 2008, 12:45 am

I second the suggestion for a couple survey books. FYI, I worked at an art library in college, so some of this is based on what students and faculty asked for and what we purchased. For general western surveys, Gardner, Stockstad, and Jansen's books are all good, but depending on your budget, the most current edition is not necessary. For modernism, Art Since 1900 is a good overview and for post war to contemporary Jonathan Fineberg's Art Since 1940 works for that time.

For non-western surveys, Stockstad does the best job of including it in hers, but Africa: The Art of a Continent and History of Japanese Art are good introductions to non-Western art. Framing America has some good stuff on Native American and Mesoamerican art.

For European Art, I'd recommend the following Nineteenth Century Art, History of Italian Renaissance Art, The History of Impressionism, Baroque and Rococo.

Good luck!

Editado: Jul 25, 2011, 12:55 pm

Be sure to visit the art21 web site to see their free guides for teachers. You might consider purchasing all the DVDs of previous seasons. They are treasures. I own all but the last season. Unfortunately I could not afford the books that accompanied the first two seasons. Even our University library seems to have missed the first one! I absolutely adore the program, the web site, and the axillary activities that have sprung up around the country with relation to it. I did however send away for all the teachers' guides. Much of the content is archived at their site on PBS.

Obtaining the DVDs available from the Cloisters, the National Art Gallery, the Museum of Art (NY), and many other museums around the country, and providing a blu-ray or dvd player in a quiet little space would enrich your students' lives inestimably. Be sure to check the FACETS web site for the wonderful classic arts videos they have available. I brain-drool over those catalogs. Along with the film schedules from the Hirshhorn, etc. etc. they constitute a list of things to see if they ever come to our art museum film programs.

Lord Kenneth Clark's book CIVILIZATION, available, I imagine on amazon, in the 1970's accompanied a PBS series. I doubt that you could find the videotapes, but the book is excellent and should provide a springboard for discussing some of the reasons people create, display, collect, and curate objects as works of art.

Do not overlook the value of some beautiful books on gardening, like Hugh Johnson's classic overview. The more students are exposed to the deliberate investment of effort and artistic taste into urban and rural environments, the more we just might prevent youths from vandalizing public and private spaces. The tragedy is that so many of them living in rented housing have so little opportunity to alter the landscape spaces around them in a way that others might value, hence the graffiti movement's genesis, in part.

It would be lovely if part of public housing and schools could provide a space for students to make things for exterior spaces, or to participate in plantings and rock gardens that they will feel invested in for a goodly span of time.

Ago 15, 2012, 7:42 am

To be provocative I'd suggest a different tack than compiling a collection of books that attempt to survey the full history of art, or attempt to canvas a movement like Impressionism. Instead for a school library I'd aim for books that will fire and enliven the kids' hunger for fun art. Specifically I'd recommend graphic art, illustrative art, sci fi and fantasy art focussing on individual artists. For instance Arthur Szyk, Leon Bakst, Winsor McKay, James Christensen, Alphonse Mucha, Ivan Bilibin, Daniel Merriam, Iain McCraig will all enchant and inspire. Also pick some classic painters who have the degree of mischief to connect well with kids like Arcimboldo, Bruegel the Elder, Hogarth, Daumier and Lautrec. That mix has something for the girls' and the boys' distinct interest. For anything more thematic avoid a who-what-where history or bios of individuals and movements, and opt instead for the juicy story-telling of Sister Wendy who helps bring to life the narrative found in great artworks. To round off the library add sound instructional books. Let's face it, kids want to do art, not just look in awe and envy. Encourage them early and often. Dan Clode